Potent Words: The Stories Behind Decades of Psychic Distress

Certain stories stick with me – some like the tenacious plantar wart that won’t go away despite liquid nitrogen, scalpel debridement, and acid – others like the varicella virus, lying dormant for years before emerging again as a painful red weeping rash.  This list is an ode really, a love letter to all the books and tales that have, for various reasons, left a permanent mark.

1)    Where the Red Fern Grows: Sixth grade maybe?  Seventh?  I’m sitting in the brown velour recliner in the family room.  Crying.  Why are they making be read this?  Belly ripped open, guts pouring out.  Entrails.  Hello, fall from innocence.  I remember nothing else.  Except a dog.  Maybe.

2)    “The Tell-Tale Heart”: 8th grade English, short story unit.  Death and a creepy abandoned house.  Ghostly dismembered organs haunting the perp.  I didn’t really get it, but ugh, I hated it.

3)    “The Lottery”: 8th grade English, short story unit.  The stem cells of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.  A lottery each year determines who will be stoned to death.  Thank you, Shirley Jackson, for helping me understand that senseless violence is often inexplicable, nightmarish, and gee, senseless.

4)    “The Most Dangerous Game”: 8th grade English, short story unit.  (I should really write my teacher, Ms. Tyson, a thank-you note.)  Protagonist winds up marooned on an island and discovers that the “host” plans to hunt him/her like a wild animal.  Even at the tender age of thirteen, I felt abandoned by the author.  Can we get some closure here?

5)    David Copperfield: AP English, 12th grade.  Main character does stuff.  Other people do stuff.  Then stuff happens for many many many pages.  I was an obedient little student.  I read the whole @#$%^& book.

6)    Pride and Prejudice: AP English, 12th grade.  This is where I lose friends.  I can’t stand Jane Austen.  My high school experience so scarred me that I haven’t ventured back between any JA covers.  And the sub-cultural infatuation with that pompous piece-of-work known as Mr. Darcy really rips my knickers.

7)    If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler: required “Reading Fiction” course, Oberlin College.  I have no idea what this book was about, a fact reflected in my class grade.

8)    Sula: from the aforementioned “Reading Fiction” course.  I don’t think my brain was ready for Toni Morrison.  The bit that stands out in my memory is when the conflicted mother uses the last bit of butter to try to relieve her baby’s constipation.  I tried reading The Bluest Eye a couple years ago, made it about ten pages – too evocative for me at that time.  I’ll try again when I’m less sensitive.

9)    A Breath of Snow and Ashes: released in 2005, shortly after the birth of my son.  This is the sixth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  I love this series.  Let me rephrase that: I absolutely, positively, resolutely ADORE this series.  And I quit reading in the middle of A Breath.  The violence was too vivid for my post-partum brain.  I sent the author an email explaining my conundrum and asking if she ever considered releasing a PG version of events.  SHE WROTE BACK – unbelievable – and said (basically) times (the 1700s) were rough, suck it up.

10) The Hunger Games trilogy: It took me about a week to recover from the first book.  I felt depressed, hopeless about our society, and totally exhausted.  These are GREAT books.  And I’d happily feel awful for another week if I could discover them anew in another incarnation.

11) The Lunar Chronicles: This series is responsible for my extreme lack of sleep in the last two weeks.  Marissa Meyer turns Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood into a mechanic, hacker, and farmer respectively, in this deliciously addicting futuristic sci-fi romp.

What are your literary scars?

Musical Moment

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